The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s largest professional organization of shark and ray scientists, has issued a resolution calling on the Associated Press Stylebook and the Reuters Style Guide to retire the phrase “shark attack” in favor of a more accurate (and less inflammatory) wording that is scaled to represent real risk and outcomes. The AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guides are reference guides for journalists and editors which focus on, among other things, reducing the usage of inaccurate and outdated terminology. The latest AP Stylebook, for example, had more than 90 new or updated entries which include encouraging journalists and editors to a stop using terms like “illegal immigrant“, “ethnic cleansing” and “homophobia”.
“Shark scientists in the United States and around the world have great respect for the integrity and reporting of the Associated Press and Reuters. We hope they will act on this recommendation and update their style guides to ensure that the public gets the most accurate information in the reporting of these incidents,” said Lara Ferry, President of the American Elasmobranch Society, who sent a formal letter to the AP Stylebook and Reuters Style Guide.
Currently, although “shark attack” is associated with an image of a large shark and a human fatality, the phrase is used by the media as a catch-all to describe any encounter between a human and a shark, even those that don’t result in any physical contact whatsoever. Fully 38% of reported “shark attacks” in New South Wales, Australia from 1970-2009 resulted in no injury whatsoever. This is misleading and facilitates a perception among the public that sharks are more dangerous than they really are, a perception which has negatively impacted shark conservation and management policy.
“The accuracy in media reporting of shark bites and different human-shark interactions is especially important during the kinds of tragic periods we have seen this summer. The public deserves the best information to make sure there is no confusion between very serious and fatal shark bites and minor incidents,” said Christopher Neff, a Ph.D. student at Sydney University.
In a recent paper, Neff and Bob Hueter of Mote Marine Lab proposed a scaled labeling typology to describe human-shark interactions. This typology covers the full range of these interactions, including:
1.Shark sightings: Sightings of sharks in the water in proximity to people. No physical human–shark contact takes place.2.Shark encounters: Human-shark interactions in which physical contact occurs between a shark and a person, or an inanimate object holding that person, and no injury takes place. For example, shark bites on surfboards, kayaks, and boats would be classified under this label. In some cases, this might include close calls; a shark physically “bumping” a swimmer without biting would be labeled a shark encounter, not a shark attack. A minor abrasion on the person’s skin might occur as a result of contact with the rough skin of the shark.3.Shark bites: Incidents where sharks bite people resulting in minor to moderate injuries. Small or large sharks might be involved, but typically, a single, nonfatal bite occurs. If more than one bite occurs, injuries might be serious. Under this category, the term “shark attack” should never be used unless the motivation and intent of the animal—such as predation or defense—are clearly established by qualified experts. Since that is rarely the case, these incidents should be treated as cases of shark “bites” rather than shark “attacks.”4.Fatal shark bites: Human–shark conflicts in which serious injuries take place as a result of one or more bites on a person, causing a significant loss of blood and/or body tissue and a fatal outcome. Again, we strongly caution against using the term “shark attack” unless the motivation and intent of the shark are clearly established by experts, which is rarely the case. Until new scientific information appears that better explains the physical, chemical, and biological triggers leading sharks to bite humans, we recommend that the term “shark attack” be avoided by scientists, government officials, the media, and the public in almost all incidences of human–shark interaction.
“Using an approach like the one Chris and I proposed puts these incidents into proper perspective,” said Dr. Hueter. “We simply must stop calling every shark-human interaction an ‘attack’ because it’s not based on science, inflates the risk to swimmers, and casts sharks as a group into an unfair light. In a time when many populations of sharks have been severely depleted, the use of ‘attack’ language in headlines and television programs is counter-productive to the need for marine conservation.”
The full American Elasmobranch Society resolution to the Associated Press and Reuters reads:
Whereas the shark research community plays a primary role in leading the public discussion of shark bites on humans, including their classification, their causes, and their significance;
Whereas the International Shark Attack File, Australian Shark Attack File, and other similar organizations have promoted public education and responsible management policies regarding shark behavior and beach safety;
Whereas the use of the term “shark attack” in a sensationalizing manner by the media can reinforce misleading stereotypes of shark behavior and may undermine public support for shark conservation, especially for the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), which is protected in many areas around the world and is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Vulnerable with an unknown population trend;
Whereas shark-human interactions referred to as “attacks” can include cases where there is no direct contact between shark and human or where small sharks cause minimal injury;
Whereas media reporting of shark-human interactions as “attacks,” regardless of the resulting injury to the human or motivation of the shark, promotes public perceptions of dreaded outcomes linked to the film Jaws and other similar fictional accounts;
Whereas the public’s increased use of watercraft and ocean recreation has increased the number of non-injurious interactions with sharks, a trend that is expected to continue;
Whereas more accurate alternatives to the singular use of the term “shark attack” for categorizing shark-human interactions are available for media reports, based on, for example: a) extent of clinical injuries (see Lentz et al’s (2010) typology) and b) injurious vs. non-injurious outcomes (see Neff and Hueter’s (2013) multi-tiered typology);
Whereas the American Elasmobranch Society wishes to preserve and build on the important relationship between scientists and the media and encourage the work of the many excellent reporters, news outlets and editors who strive for journalistic accuracy;
Therefore be it resolved that the American Elasmobranch Society urges the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, Reuters General Style Guide and similar standard references for the media to adopt a labeling typology for the multiples types of interactions and outcomes associated with shark-human interactions, thereby resisting use of the term “attack” without scientific basis and providing more accurate reporting.
“The AES resolution sets a standard for media reporting that says during every summer, every shark incident should be discussed in ways that inform the public. I hope the Associated Press and Reuters will make these changes,” said Christopher Neff.